From the mid-1930s through the 1960s International Friendship Gardens was a popular tourist destination. The gardens in Michigan City, Indiana, represented countries around the world. The venue also hosted musical and theatrical entertainment. The gardens lost popularity from the 1970s to the early 2000s, but have now sprung back. Today people visit the newly named Friendship Botanic Gardens to stroll through rejuvenated gardens, hike forest paths, and even get married.
How the gardens started
The inspiration for the International Friendship Gardens began with the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. Three Stauffer brothers, owners of an Indiana nursery, developed a small garden for the fair. The garden’s theme was “Peace and friendship to all nations.” The garden so impressed visitors Dr. and Mrs. Frank Warren that they asked the brothers to create a garden near their Michigan City home.
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The International Friendship Gardens encouraged international diplomacy. Countries sent flowers, plants, and statuary. The king of Persia sent roses for the first rose garden. The Netherlands’ Queen Wilhelmina contributed 200,000 tulips. The king of England sent not only plants, but also a royal gardener to create an English garden.
Besides the gardens, the venue included the Theater of Nations, set on an island in the garden’s Lake Lucerne. A nearby hillside served as seating for ballet, drama, and musical performances.
Gardens fell into disrepair
As the Stauffer brothers aged and passed on, the neglected gardens became overgrown. Jean Houck, assistant to the last living Stauffer brother, took over the gardens. Under her direction, a board of directors formed. Volunteers maintained the gardens. If fact, the gardens were completely volunteer run. Unfortunately, there was little money to invest in improvements.
Friendship Botanic Gardens today
In 2014, a new board member spearheaded an effort to rejuvenate the gardens. They hired a small staff who handle grant applications and event planning. Through grant funding they’ve added a lot of improvements.. The Michigan City Redevelopment Board donated vintage lampposts. They also donated funds for the lamppost installation. Besides being aesthetically pleasing, the lighting allows evening events.
ArcelorMittal, a nearby steel company, provided a grant for a children’s garden. The children’s garden includes a sensory garden and playground equipment.
With the help of over 60 volunteer, the gardens are coming back to life. Tulips are no longer feasible in the international gardens due to increased deer population. However, the Persian rose garden is beautifully maintained, as are the Norwegian, Romanian and other international gardens. An Irish garden is in process of being added. A new Native American Garden includes the “three sisters,” corn, beans and squash grown together.
Friendship Botanic Gardens events
Friendship Botanic Gardens holds events throughout the year. Some are nature or garden-related events. At the Butterfly Bonanza held this past summer, gardeners learned how to attract butterflies to their own backyards. At Maple Sugar Time, held in late February or early March, visitors watch a demonstration of maple syrup making
Other events are heritage related, like the upcoming September Polish Fest. At the annual July Native American Heritage Day, visitors experience indigenous peoples’ traditional gardening, trapping, cooking, and crafting.
Private events are often held in the gardens, including weddings in the Symphony Garden. There is even a nearby bridal changing cabin where the bride prepares for the ceremony.
If you visit Friendship Botanic Gardens
Friendship Botanic Gardens is located at 2055 E U.S. 12 in Michigan City, Indiana. The gardens are open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, May through October, and on weekends in November. Check the website for further details.
Disclosure: The South Shore Convention & Visitors Authority hosted our visit to Northwest Indiana. However, all opinions in this article are my own.
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